Archive for May, 2010

This past week I decided to add an additional grocery store to my weekly errands. I’ve been shopping at a Schnuck’s store near our home. Schnuck’s is a local company, founded in the 1930s, and has branched out into a few other cities during the past few years. I like the store near our home, but the other customers can be oblivious. I’ve nearly collided several times with people who push their carts very fast, with no regard for others who are “merging“ from the aisles. I try to make eye contact with folks but they’re in a “zone”, finishing their errand in a hurry. (Sometimes I’m in a “zone,” too. By definition you wouldn’t know if you were oblivious or not….)

But this past week, I couldn’t find an item at this store, so onward to the next-closest Schnuck’s, and what a difference! Some shoppers were disengaged, but no one pushed their carts around like they were in a damned roller derby. The décor of this store was pleasant too; in certain outside aisles, false ceilings made the space homey, somehow.

I don’t necessarily love to shop for groceries, but I love grocery stores as a “space.” I feel a little wistful when we move from a community and no longer patronize favorite supermarkets; such places occupy large portions of weekly time and attention, after all, and sometimes you get to know the employees, too. I actually said goodbye and “thanks” to some of the folks who work at the Akron grocery where I shopped before we moved to St. Louis.

I still remember the basic organization of the Day ’n’ Nite stores in my hometown. The store located at Seventh and Orchard burned in (I think) 1967, when I was ten, and was replaced by the store at Fifth and Orchard which remained open until the late 1980s or early 1990s. In that earlier store, we entered the front door (beside the mechanical horse and race car rides) and proceeded straight ahead into the aisle with breakfast cereals, which of course was one of my favorite foods. The cash registers were to the left. As we went down that aisle and around to the left, we entered a shorter aisle which ended at the comic books! Other aisles were laid out at right angles to these first ones. Funny that I remember the basic layout so clearly, considering my age at the time. Ice cream and “TV dinners” were at the end of the last aisle. Dad cooked from scratch, but I do remember that we tried frozen dinners one evening as we watched Jackie Gleason’s show. Frozen food wasn’t so great back then.

I was still into comic books when the new Day ‘n’ Nite opened, so I liked that section. You came into the store and walked past the check-out lines and past the manager’s station (which was slightly elevated; the manager was Lily Ritchie), and the magazines and comic books were on the other side of the manager’s station. As you browsed the magazines, the produce section was behind you. I collected issues of the comic “Enemy Ace” during my phase of building World War I airplane models. The sexy magazines were supposed to be in the back section of the magazines but were sometimes left in front next to the Redbooks and McCalls. I was afraid someone would see me look at them, so I didn’t, but the covers were usually “intriguing” enough.

During my growing-up years Vandalia also had a Kroger store at Seventh and Gallatin, an A&P store at Sixth and Gallatin, and the Tri City grocery, which was part of the First National Bank building (the old Dieckmann Hotel) along Fifth Street downtown. Vandalia also had an IGA at Kennedy Blvd (formerly Third St.) and Jefferson. All these photos are from friends on the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page. Kroger eventually moved down to the plaza of stores at Third and Gallatin.  I don’t remember the layout of the A&P too clearly, but my parents did shop there in the 1960s and collected S&H Green Stamps. What fun when we filled a whole book!  I also remember being interested in a girl whom I’d met at a high school countywide band concert.  From a nearby community, she happened to be at the A&P one summer day when I was there.  She and I strolled around the aisles for a while, joking around, and she went on her way.  That was our complete relationship, beginning middle and end.  But a girl had noticed me!  

Three things I remember about Tri City, which like the A&P operated till about the late 1970s, were the hand-drawn price signs, the Juicy Fruit and Fruit Stripe gum at the check out, and the row of seats where older folks sat. We’d sometimes see a widowed cousin, Homer Fisher, sitting there; he was always glad to talk to us. We must’ve gotten Tootsie Roll suckers at Kroger, because shadowy childhood recollections of the store still pop into mind (no pun intended) when I see ads for those suckers and, occasionally, treat myself to one. I remember aspects of all these stores in Vandalia because my dad was such a bargain shopper; he would drive all around town to get the best prices. Whatever he saved on the price of bananas, he must’ve spent on gasoline for multiple errands, but he didn’t seem to consider that. I think he just liked bargain-shopping.

Another memory of Dad concerns the (in retrospect) amazing policy of Day ‘n’ Nite, where faithful customers could charge their groceries like a bar tab: the cashier printed the total on a card, you signed your name, and you could pay the bill later. What a great honor system, and probably something even a small-town store couldn’t do today. Dad always got upset if our total got over $50, which at the time represented four or five major shopping trips. Although Dad did most of the grocery shopping, he’d scold Mom for letting the total get too high. So typical of Dad: quick to disapprove, but a devoted provider.

During the 70s and 80s, when going barefoot was a fad, shopping for groceries was pleasant without shoes. You’d see teenagers and a few adults heading shoeless into the store with fair regularity. On a hot day, the feeling of the cool linoleum on your feet as you navigated the air-conditioned aisles was delightful, particularly as you strolled past the frozen foods.

I found some websites that discuss the economic and cultural history of supermarkets, for instance, http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/money_13.html The site mentions the Piggly Wiggly company, interesting to me because my dad began his trucking career hauling citrus from the South to Piggly Wiggly stores in central Illinois. But chains like that and others would eventually crowd out privately owned stores. Even chains eventually became endangered in the face of larger companies.  My hometown has Aldi’s and Harmon’s, and the Wal-Mart dominates.

Supermarkets developed in tandem with American affluence and automobile culture. (See http://www.groceteria.com/about/a-quick-history-of-the-supermarket/) Older markets specialized in meats or dry goods, but “super markets” carried a variety of selections displayed as a kind of journey, with certain kinds of products first, ice cream and frozen food toward the end of the last aisle, and treats like candy near the check-out. This was exactly the layout of the Day ‘n’ Nite that burned in ‘67. Supermarkets revolutionized food shopping and created numerous other cultural changes.

In certain ways, kitchen items came to represent American culture. As many people know, a notable Cold War exchange happened in 1959 between Khrushchev and Nixon, inspired by the typical contents of a kitchen. Nixon argued the merits of American capitalism as he and the Soviet leader toured displays of household items. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/opinion/24safire.html?_r=2 Not so long afterward, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made art of things like beer cans, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup labels. Pop art continues to capture public imagination. Food for additional reflection (no pun intended): how American well-being, even American creativity, became handily symbolized by grocery and kitchen products.

And speaking of brand names: one of my favorite “bathroom books” is What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons by Warren Dotz and Jim Morton (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Leafing through this book I think back on childhood trips to the grocery store via characters and products like:

Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The Campbell Soup Kids
Florida Orange Bird
Funny Face soft drink mix characters, like Goofy Grape and Loud-Mouth Lemon
Big Shot Chocolate
Mr. Bubble
Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya)
Jolly Green Giant
Sugar Pops Pete
Sugar Bear for Sugar Crisp cereal
Tony the Tiger
Toucan Sam
Poppin’ Fresh
Cap’n Crunch
Quisp and Quake cereals
Trix Rabbit
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Coco Pops)
Punchy of Hawaiian Punch

What happy memories of everyday moments! I also remember a brand of cereal in the early 1960s called Kellogg’s OKs, which had Yogi Bear on the box. The cereal bits were little O’s and K’s. I suppose it represents the triumph of marketing and consumerism to draw a close connection between advertising icons, brand names, and one’s childhood memories. But at least one can be aware of the larger cultural context of one’s life.

How do you end a set of recollections of grocery stores? You don’t, because it’s a part of your life that’s ongoing, even if you think of your trips as a chore rather than grist for recollection. My father hauled his elderly self to the supermarket each week, purchasing bargains and using his coupons, right up till his last few days. So will most of us.

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An article in Yahoo News (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_baby_names) indicated that currently popular baby names include Cullen and Isabella, inspired by the “Twilight” series. Jacob is still a popular name, as is Emma. Emily has been a popular name, and also Matthew. Around the year 2060, the nursing homes of America will have lots of old folks named Jacob, Emily, and Matthew.

The popularity of certain names change, of course. Mildred, my mother’s name, isn’t typical anymore, nor the pretty names of her cousins Hazel and Lydia. And yet Emma was common in the 1800s.

If you’re a visitor to old graveyards, you’ll often see interesting names. “Tabitha” (Acts 9:36-42) has the obvious Bewitched connotations, but I’ve a nineteenth-century cousin by that name, buried in our family cemetery. You don’t see many kids named Moses (Moshe, perhaps, the Hebrew equivalent), but a blacksmith named Moses Cluxton, Sr., is interred a few yards away from Tabitha, and near both is an ancestor of mine, named Comfort. That’s a now archaic girl’s name that surely derives from a biblical notion of comfort. Also buried there is the grave of another 1800s cousin, named Cyrene, which though biblical is a place rather than a person (Luke 23:2, Acts, 2:10, and elsewhere).

(On the other hand, I know a place that was named for a biblical person: Loami, Illinois, near Springfield, named for the prophet Hosea’s son (“Not my people,” Hos. 1:8-9). A branch of my family, the Colburns, settled that town in the early 1800s.)

I’ve found numerous interesting names from the Bible. Although biblical names like Jacob, Sarah, and Matthew are popular these days, other biblical names that you might (or might not) consider for your children include: Dodo (Judges. 10:1), Phallu (Gen. 46:9), Put (Gen. 10:6), Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Muppim, Huppim, and Ard (Gen. 46:21), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Cor. 4:3), Ziph (1 Cor. 2:42), Hazo (Gen. 22:22), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3). I used to know a girl named Hazelelponi (not really).

The Bible features a few longer names, too: Sennacherib, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and others which don’t appear in baby name books. (There is the actor and rapper Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, however.) Two other unusual names are the artisans Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 31.

I was a long-time user of Aunt Jemima® products when I learned that the first Jemima was a daughter of Job—his second set of children (Job 42:13).

I knew about Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, but I’d not realized his name was not only fishy (his own regretful estimation) but biblical: the original Salmon was Ruth’s father in law (Ruth 4:20-21).

If you don’t have children but may in the future, perhaps these thoughts will give you some ideas for names. But if you call your kid Phallu or Dodo or Muppin, don’t tell them you got the idea from me!


You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory (which is better than I can do!). But he had never noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus.

I looked at the chapters and thought: What twelve women? But they’re all there: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).

Rabbi Sharon’s point is that, just as we may not notice people in a text when we read too quickly, we tend not to notice each other because we’re too busy with other things. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17). (The link to Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, although long since broken, was found at http://www.moreshetyisrael.org/2005_01_01_archive.html and accessed by me in 2008.)

I’m still thinking about that. A few years ago I noticed a certain obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.

I thought about how many people I pass each day who are just “hello” people: always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.

John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us are stuck from time to time: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.

Have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story can be found in Acts 3. The man born lame seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

An indispensable outcome of Bible study is the compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain.  Ideally, Bible study will make us more concerned about the poor and needy and will lead us toward ways to help them. Bible reading is interesting and uplifting but if it doesn’t help us grow in love, I think we’re merely spinning our wheels spiritually. It can be a difficult journey, but we need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, set aside our personal pressing concerns for a moment, and inquire about their needs.


I’ve a genealogical chart, purchased on eBay® a few years ago, that is filled with biblical names. The chart is “The Adam and Eve Family Tree” published by Good Things Company (Norman, OK, 1975), published “to improve the reading and understanding of the Bible for the glory of God.” The chart color-codes all the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is the last name under the tribe of Judah, and Paul is mentioned with the tribe of Benjamin. Incredibly, the names are quite readable and are expertly arranged so that everyone fits onto a 24×36 chart.

I love looking at this chart and figuring out who’s who. Under the genealogy of Esau, there are listed several “dukes”: Duke Nahath, Duke Zerah, Duke Shammah, Duke Mizzah, and others. “Dukes”? That’s the KJV rendering; the RSV translates the title “chief” and the NRSV as “clans” (Gen. 36:15-19).

I call these kinds of people “walk ons.” They’re the Bible people who are only mentioned once or twice, with or without an accompanying story. Hundreds of names fill the book’s pages.

Not all the Bible’s walk ons are obscure. A while back, our pastor preached on Exodus 1:8-2:10; every time he mentioned the midwife Puah (Ex. 1:15) I thought he was saying hoo-wah! But those midwives (the other was Shiphrah) have a notable part in the biblical drama. We all know the story, even if we don’t recall their names.

The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) figures in only a few verses but he certainly becomes an example of how the Holy Spirit networks people; Philip came along right when the Ethiopian needed him—and they were near water for baptism!

Melchizedek’s original story is limited to three verses (Gen. 14:18-20), but what an amazing walk on! The author of Hebrews uses the king-priest Melchizedek (and the absence of a genealogy for him in a genealogy-filled book) to develop a theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:1-17).

The Queen of Sheba, too, has a surprisingly small role (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12, considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries.

You might be surprised how little a role Adam and Eve play as named characters in the Bible, although their influence is everywhere present. Unless I’ve missed some references, I don’t think Eve is mentioned again by name in the Old Testament after Genesis 4:1; she appears in the New Testament in 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13. Adam does figure in the Pseudepigrapha and other non-canonical writings.

Can you consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse a “walk on”?  LOL

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The other day was a warm, pretty spring day. On the spur of the moment, I didn’t put shoes on when I drove to the ATM to deposit a check and then to the Walgreen’s drive-through for a prescription. It wasn’t the first barefoot moment of the year; in February I’d walked (fast) to retrieve the newspaper and the mail on a chilly morning. But the spring day was so lovely, a small expression of gratitude seemed appropriate!


Bare feet used to be a fad, a kind of late-hippy-era summer accessory, not common but enough so to be acceptable in many places and a pleasant option on warm days. You’d see teenagers strolling barefoot upon hometown sidewalks, shopping downtown, inspecting the newest LPs, stopping by the grocery store, and patronizing the Dairy Queen. Even a few grown-ups ran errands without shoes, and no one seemed to think twice about it. One time I noticed a well-thought-of local woman, purse in hand, heading barefooted into the IGA.

I can’t imagine that the fad will ever return. We’ve become too phobic about halting the spread of germs, too anxious about law suits and liability. Besides, flip flops are so ubiquitous now, and you’re basically barefoot in those. And yet, the soles are more sensitive to touch than the hands, and going barefoot provides the possibilities of tactile experiences, such as the fur of our pets, the nap of a carpet, a sidewalk, autumn leaves, the texture of the curb on which you try to balance, and summer grass. These are sensations that create peaceful, quirky memories (and a very unserious chronicle) of warm days.


As a young boy on my way to the neighborhood park, I stepped on some thistles. That small event lingers in my mind because I hadn’t realized, up till that moment, that I had no shoes on.

In childhood, you can go about your day’s pleasures and not even think about shoes unless your parents insist on it. We adults, though, don’t usually set out barefoot with the goal of a fun and unstructured day.


Pulling off one’s shoes is a nearly universal moment of relief, whether or not one likes going barefoot. Socks-only or slippers are welcomed alternatives to dress- and work-shoes when one arrives home, tired from the day.

A neighbor, with whom I liked to chat, sometimes wore her dress clothes while walking barefoot with her dog. She kicked off her shoes after work but didn’t change before taking her buddy out to do his business. “I love going barefoot!” she said.


Ever since learning to drive in the mid 70s, I like to kick my sandals off in the car so I can feel the floorboard and pedals. Many of my shoeless errands—less than 1% of all the errands I’ve ever run, but more memorable than the others—were spontaneous moments when I needed to make photocopies or buy an album or drop off dry cleaning–or when, on road trips, I noticed a interesting-looking antique store along the highway—and I thought, Oh, heck, why bother putting shoes back on, if no one minds?

Going grocery shopping, for instance. Now, most supermarkets disallow bare feet, but I enjoyed the times when going barefooted to the store wasn’t entirely uncommon. I loved feeling the cool linoleum (a relief after hastening across a hot parking lot) as I navigated a squeaking cart among familiar aisles and watched my toes stroll. In the frozen food section, I felt a delightful extra breeze on my feet.


My hometown’s business district lines Gallatin Street primarily between Sixth and Third Streets. When I was a teenager, my cousin’s gift shop in the 500 block carried LPs and 45s, and around the corner on Fifth Street was the library, City hall (where the water-sewer office was located), and the newspaper office. On both sides of Gallatin were a variety of nice shops, and down Fourth Street, past other shops and the electric company, was the post office. Sometimes I volunteered to drop off my parents’ utility bills and to pick up the paper. I remember a day when I got an excellent parking place in front of City Hall, and with a contented sigh, I proceeded around town barefoot. The sidewalks felt warm and smooth, like our back porch, but the sensation of sidewalks alternated with that of cool floors and low nap carpets as I made my leisurely way.


Imagine padding shoeless through your house and feeling so relaxed and unencumbered. Then imagine padding shoeless while you’re out and about, but you don’t feel embarrassed or squeamish about it. Instead, you feel happy and mischievous, “full of yourself” in a good way.


Back then, bell-bottomed jeans could hide your feet for shoeless errands. If you wore straight-legged jeans or shorts, well, your feet could run but they couldn’t hide….


Genealogy was my hobby in high school. I completed the family “tree” commenced by my grandma (https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/thinking-about-history-four-mile-prairie-part-2/) and in the summertime I copied the 200-some tombstone inscriptions at the family’s country cemetery. For the cemetery trips (about 10 miles out of town), I put on shorts or jeans and tank top but wore no shoes, figuring that several hours walking in the grass didn’t require them. A visitor to the cemetery didn’t expect to see a barefoot, long-haired young man walking around with a clipboard (but I’m quite friendly-looking: see below).


I had a friend who for whom going barefoot was not negotiable. She went shoeless nearly all summer. As we walked downtown and around neighborhoods, we padded into her local church—the doors were never locked—and, as we circled the sanctuary upon the carpeted outer aisle, she explained the significance of the Stations of the Cross. She described a dream wherein she went to Mass without shoes on, and when she came forward for the host, the priest chided her about her bare feet.


One time, on a high school summer afternoon, I left a downtown shop and encountered a fellow student whom I didn’t care for much, and whom I just didn’t want to see that day. Fortunately he stood away from the store and looked toward the street, apparently watching for someone. Barefoot, I was able to stroll silently behind him on tiptoe and down to my car. Who could manage such a furtive maneuver while wearing flip flops?

Another time, I strolled out the dorm door, without putting shoes on at all, for a trip to the pharmacy. My heels made gentle but hasty thuds upon the floor as I navigated the aisles and located my items, then I stood in line, made my purchases, and felt happy at a completed chore. Then I encountered a friend who loved to talk. He saw me first—arrgh! But I’m too tenderhearted to brush people off, especially a friend. Walking along, I carried my bags of purchases, watched my toes stroll, and said uh huh, uh huh a lot as my friend reported on his day and week.


My wife and I joke that, apparently, we’re very friendly-looking people, because people start conversations with us, even when we think we’re glum or distant.

A lost and anxious family, with maps in hand, chose tired and barefoot me among others fueling their cars at an I-64 gas station, to ask for help. Just an amiable-seeming person, even when fatigued! I don’t remember where they were going but they were from New Jersey and the area was fairly remote. I knew how to advise them, and they were grateful.


Going barefoot signals you’re spontaneous, genuine. You announce to the world that you’re unique, happy, relaxed, and have a sense of humor about yourself and a measure of inner freedom.

Some people will still think you’re odd! Others will appreciate your spirit.

Whenever I took a shoeless neighborhood walk in nice weather, I liked to visit the nearby small market for a soda and other groceries. The market owner was a joy to chat with—a good friend at the time—and once told me: “I’m so glad you go barefoot! I want to, but customers give me dirty looks. But my feet are never anywhere near the food. So what’s the problem?” One day I was even (jokingly) scolded for wearing sneakers.


Barefoot people aren’t necessarily slovenly. It’s funny to see people who have otherwise dressed fine, like a book- and mug-carrying friend who wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and down vest for the autumn day’s school work. A cousin of mine laughed as she told of an acquaintance of hers who had arrived at a family event in a suit and tie and bare feet, apparently having gotten only so far in “dressing down” from his Sunday best.

At a strip mall in the South, I noticed a fellow, in casual summer clothes, walking barefoot into a strip mall’s shoe store, with his family along. You don’t see many folks in shoe stores starting from scratch, as it were.


A barefoot woman shopped the convenience store near my former home. She had her young, shoeless son along. A few weeks later I happened to notice her again at the grocery store. “Beautiful day to go barefoot,” I said as I entered the store. “Absolutely! I always go around barefooted in summer!” she declared. “I work for a house-cleaning service and just put on my slippers to go inside!”

That’s a twist to a familiar procedure: put off your shoes going outside, put them on coming in.


I read a list of things a person shouldn’t do if he or she wants to be successful in a job. One was: don’t take a sick day and then return to work with nice nails. Another: keep your shoes on at work, even if they’re uncomfortable. Good advice, I’m sure. In his essay “Going Barefoot” in his 1983 collection Hugging the Shore, John Updike writes of “the pleasant illusion of unaccountability” of being shoeless in public (for him, Martha’s Vineyard), and he’s right about both the pleasantness and the illusion.

Two or three times during my student days, I carried my sandals in my book bag when heading to the library for research. I recall feeling super-motivated to get a lot finished as I padded around the stacks, checked the card catalog, located books, tiptoed to the photocopier, and generally was extremely productive! A friend used to say, “I can’t think unless my feet are comfortable!” Perhaps shoelessness should be listed among the habits of highly effective people….

But few jobs would allow that, other than home employment. (Hurray for blogging….) Lifeguards and swimming instructors also come to mind. I read about a person who worked in a lookout tower in a national forest. Along with the gorgeous view, the person loved the job because it didn’t require footwear.


Over the years, though, I sporadically enjoyed chances to go barefoot during vacations and weekend trips. I still like to, though still more occasionally. Like my shoe-free chores, a few barefoot adventures shine in memory of leisurely times (in addition to more typical visits to the beach, pool, and water park, and through airport security… ).

Years ago, an artsy district of shops might not have lingered in my memories had I worn shoes. Driving to the town to visit a summer day’s craft fair, I regretted wearing jeans instead of shorts. So I decided to go barefoot. With my touristy camera over my shoulder and my heels thumping the sidewalks, I browsed the craft displays, booths, and shops for a nice time until the walkways became too hot, and I purchased an art print of sailboards and a couple of gifts. I noticed a few other shoeless folk: a young woman shopping with a bevy of friends, and two women and a young man (he hugged them both around their shoulders) at a food stand.


It seems like couples are one or the other: a “no-shoes-no-problem-I-love-it!” person marries a “going-barefoot-is-gross-stupid-and-unsafe” person. My wife definitely hasn’t shared my adventures, other than indulging me as we’ve taken walks. I’ve seldom seen a barefoot couple, except on the beach. Shopping at the market one day, however, I noticed a young couple, walking shoeless, close and hand-in-hand, as they shopped. They could‘ve been walking along the in-coming tide.


A young woman stood among the crowd in a Maryland shopping mall. She and her family were watching some sort of performance near the food court. I swear, she was barefoot and pregnant.


I was a stay-at-home dad for my daughter during summers. Among our many, many activities: when she was still in her stroller, and later when she liked to ride in her red wagon, she and I took shoeless walks around the block. (Unencumbered toes were useful in dealing with a stroller’s brake and errant wheels.) Sometimes I skipped wearing shoes (or just left them in the car) while shuttling her among summertime activities: camps, trips to other kids’ houses, the park.  One day, following zoo camp, she wanted to visit the gift shop, and bare feet were helpful for negotiating the crowd of parents and kids as I kept up with a small, laughing daughter trotting among the displays of toys, books, and plush animals.  I did, however, miss the humor of being barefooted in that jungle-theme place.

How nice one morning as we walked down the street, when someone called out, “The world would be a better place if dads spent more time with their daughters!”


You see parents with shoeless kids, but the reverse is surprising. Photos of Jackie Kennedy, shopping barefoot in Italy with her two small, shod children, are poignant. One time I noticed a teenage kid and his mother at the laundromat.  The kid wore shorts and sneakers, but the bluejeaned mom’s feet were bare.  In another town, I passed a shoeless dad who herded four or five little kids, all in sandals, through K-Mart.

Do such parents fuss and whine to go barefoot until their kids give in and say, “Oh, alright, but just this once…”


Neighborhood strolls have always been my main barefooted pleasure, and these have few particular, silly anecdotes to tell. Tendonitis in both feet have made this pleasure infrequent. But still, the air on my feet, the mischievous feeling of being barefooted, the warm grass, and the grainy texture of the sidewalks and asphalt, all feel so relaxing.

Someone once said, if she had her life to do over, she’d go barefoot earlier in the spring till later in the fall. Strolling barefooted in spring or summer rain is delightful. If I venture out shoeless, I splash along with my umbrella and feel like a hippy Gene Kelly.

Visiting neighborhood garage sales can be profitably done without shoes, although with the accompanying cheerfulness in your heart, you might spend too much money.

Over the years I found a few good walking trails sufficiently grassy (and gravel-free ) to make shoeless walking quite nice!

Walking through autumn leaves while barefoot is also a joy. During Indian summer days, you feel the leaves between your toes. To me, the feeling is as nice as beach sand. Raking leaves barefoot on Indian summer days makes a tedious job a little more fun.

Sometimes, to my chagrin, I step squarely on a pebble or, in fall, an acorn as I walk. But going barefoot is healthy because it improves your eyesight, as they say. You have to watch where you’re going …


I’ve dashed out in the snow without my shoes to get the mail, but I do not recommend it!


Some people show amazing daring. In a DC suburb, when my wife and I were horribly uncomfortable in the 100-plus temperatures, a stocky fellow trudged barefooted across the parking lot with his wife. That asphalt must’ve been terribly hot, but he betrayed no discomfort.

A student came to my history discussion section without her shoes on, every day well into autumn. She wasn’t bold and outgoing, but kind of shy and cautious, gingerly crossing her ankles beneath the chair. The class happened to be scheduled in a chemistry classroom with big signs to wash your hands and keep your shoes on because of the chemicals. The poor woman probably glows in the dark now.


“No one goes barefoot anymore!” lamented an Arizona neighbor who loved going shoeless. That was in the late 1980s. She told me that she used to walk barefoot upon scorching sidewalks with a beach towel. She threw the towel in front of her as she walked.

“No one goes barefoot anymore” (although a recent song by Katie Melua, “Two Bare Feet,” is so ridiculously catchy that you want to remove your shoes and dance, at the very least). Fads do become quaint, jobs and expectations change us, and we lose both a sense of balance and a sense of humor concerning ourselves and our place in the world. It becomes difficult to let go of one’s ego and do silly, spur-of-the-moment things that bring a kind of healing. That’s why, each year, I still like to omit shoes when, for instance, I’m going out for a neighborhood walk…. or when I need to visit the ATM, or the pharmacy drive-through. Sometimes, rather than an errand or walk, I’ll drive through the countryside. Certain highways, like U.S. 250 in Virginia, linger in memory because of relaxing, shoeless excursions. Sometimes I ride my bike barefoot, which feels wonderful in the breeze and lets me be shoeless more safely.


A friend commented that she didn’t wear shoes to college class, not for comfort but to protest an issue. “I hate going barefoot!” she said, “I just had to make a statement!” That’s actually a good way to think about this small, special joy: going barefoot is a statement that once we grow old and tally the things we’d do differently if our lives were led again, one thing we’ll be glad we didn’t miss were all the moments spent wading through the air.

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Some reflections from Springhouse magazine… The other day I read an essay called “If Memory Doesn’t Serve” by the contemporary writer Ian Frazier (in Susan Orlean, ed., The Best American Essays, 2005 Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 56-61). He writes that he confuses certain names in his memory. For instance, he thinks “Roger Moore,” the James Bond actor, when he means “Michael Moore,” the activist filmmaker, partly because Michael Moore once made a film called Roger and Me about the CEO of GM, Robert Smith. Frazier says that he confuses actors Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and also Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. He knows the difference between these people but admits that, when we’re adults, the memory is less sharp than when we were younger. Yet our memories are increasingly filled with miscellaneous information.

We all have similar memory lapses. (Frazier writes that he’s sometimes introduced as “Ian Fleming,” the James Bond author who died years ago.) Corresponding with a friend, I referred to the poet Robinson Jeffers but I wrote “Richard Jeffries,” who was a 19th century nature writer. I don’t confuse Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I do confuse Parker and several other actors: Sarah Michelle Geller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Juliette Lewis, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I know the difference, but I don’t follow movie stars closely and I have to think a moment who’s who. Similarly Colin Firth, Clive Owen, and Colin Farrell. Wait … Which one was in Girl with a Pearl Earring? … No, not him, he was in King Arthur with Keira Knightley …

Speaking of … Briefly I confused Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and Giada DeLaurentiis. I sorted out those folks, though. Whew! I’d been perplexed why Natalie Portman of Star Wars fame was on Everyday Italian. But I still become confused which of these 1980s sitcoms is which: Family Ties, Family Matters, Full House, Facts of Life, and Growing Pains.

When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, several musical groups went by three-part names. There was the Marshall Tucker Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Pure Prairie League, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Black Oak Arkansas, Ten Years After, and a few others. (I’m leaving out Grand Funk Railroad because they were a favorite and I didn’t confuse them with other groups.) A song comes on the Seventies radio station…. Okay, which of those groups is this one?…I’m stumped for a while, as I am with some of the soft-rock acts of the same era, like England Dan and John Ford Coley, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Air Supply. Who did Don’t Pull Your Love? Who sang Love Is the Answer? Give me a minute

My daughter used to love a cereal, Kellogg’s® Honey Nut Clusters®, which features a cartoon squirrel on the box. When she was little, she referred to the brand as “Squirrel Cereal.” So one day I shopped our local Walgreen’s and realized I needed to buy cereal and other grocery-type items. As I scanned the shelves, a clerk asked me if I needed assistance. I froze, and then I laughed and explained to the clerk that my daughter wanted a certain brand but I couldn’t remember the actual name. All I could remember was “Squirrel Cereal.” Fortunately I spotted a box on the shelves, saving me a little dignity.

Sometimes I’ll stand in front of twenty undergraduates and, for fifty minutes, talk to them about, for instance, the Civil War. I do this without notes and without much previous review. I’m no expert on the war, but I’ve done this lecture enough times that the facts return to mind right away. So …why do I have to daily place my car keys in the same location, religiously, or else I’ll lose them?

Speaking of students, one time I greeted a student as she came into class. “Hi, Robin!” I said. She looked at me and said, “Professor, I’m not Robin, I’m ….” (Here we go again, I’ve forgotten her name!) I realized that “Robin” was the young woman who sat beside her. Ever afterward I can picture Robin and … Not-Robin. More importantly, now I’m always a little careful when I call on students, especially early in the semester; do I have their names right? (I’ve fifty to seventy students each semester, so the process of names-learning takes a little time.)

The memory lapses that infuriate me are the times when I remember to do something, but at an inopportune time to write myself a note. Hey, I gotta write that person a letter … but at the moment, I’m tooling down the interstate and everyone is speeding along, and I don’t dare take my eyes off the road … maybe I should buy myself a tape recorder… or it’s three in the morning and I’m too sleepy to get up … or I do get up and write myself a note, but I can’t read what I’d written while half-asleep. Remember to [illegible] Tuesday!!!

Another thing that I do, a common lapse: I’m in one room, and then I go into a room to retrieve something. But once there, I’ve forgotten what I came for. I have to return to the other room to remember. I suppose that’s a good way to get exercise.

My cat wanders into the kitchen. What goes on in her brain? How much does she remember? She knows what the sound of a can opener means, even though we’ve not fed her canned food for a long time. Maybe cats remember very little, or a lot. They certainly don’t have much on their to-do lists. Sleeping, licking, eating, sleeping … was I supposed to sleep on the sofa before I slept on the recliner, or vice versa? I suppose the upside of faulty memory is the richness of our lives that includes many interests and experiences, even those they become jumbled in our minds.

Not only that, but what a relief we feel when the ol’ memory clicks into place! That misremembered fact, that forgotten location, bring such happiness when they come to mind! Now I can drive to work without a note pad in the adjacent seat. Now I can call that person by her correct name, and watch movies without confusion. I know I’m not senile after all. I can eat my squirrel cereal in peace.

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A few years ago I spent a year exploring the Bible. Where might you begin a time of Bible reading? Well … Genesis always works. So I started at verse 1.

But then I paused at verse 2:

and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (RSV)

A year ago, when I first considered my project, I purchased a used book with an intriguing title, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Among other topics, the author discussed medieval teachers who read the Bible in an associative way. For instance, during the 13th century, Bernard of Clairvaux began a sermon on the second verse of the Song of Songs, then sidetracked into thoughts on humility, and then Israel and the Church, Christ, conversion, the prophets, and other subjects, until he had six sermons—and had scarcely gotten past that original verse. (The word for such reading is, appropriately, meditative “reminiscence,” a way—admittedly a way that requires more rather than less interpretive responsibility—to explore varieties of scriptural meanings among texts.)[1]

I did something similar as his sermonic reverie; I stopped at Gen. 1:2 and went on a journey among interesting topics. In this case, I began with the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit figures more prominently in Pentecostal theology and practice than in the mainstream denominations. When we discussed the Spirit during a church class; most of us said that we address Jesus in prayer more often the Holy Spirit. In recent years, though, I’ve called on the Spirit more often. In my Bible studies a few years ago, I was struck by the way the Spirit “proves” God’s presence in one’s life.[2] Jesus actually assured his disciples that the Spirit would be a better teacher and guide for them than Jesus himself (John 14:15-27)! So there is no need for any of us to feel sad that we never knew Jesus in the flesh; the Spirit makes Jesus known to us now and always. The great prophecy of Joel 2:28-29—the gift of the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh” (not just a few prophets and gifted people within God’s plan)—finds its momentous fulfillment at the first Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21). Paul rejoiced that the Galatian church—Gentile believers in central Asia Minor—had received God’s Spirit, proving God’s love for Gentiles and Jews alike. Thus Paul felt outraged at them for trying to supplement God’s grace with the Jewish rite of circumcision, never even required for Gentiles (Gal. 1-5).

And so it is with us: God proves that he loves us when the power of the Spirit comes to us and guides us in love, peace, reconciliation, and kindness toward one another (Gal. 5:18-24). The Spirit who guides, teaches, and helps each of us is the same Spirit of Genesis 1, the prophets, and of the whole Bible.

The Spirit figures more sporadically in the Old Testament than the New; in fact, the outpouring of the Spirit upon all believers was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and made that fulfillment such a spectacular thing for the first Christians. Here, in Genesis 1:2 is the first biblical reference to the Spirit. I thought: What are some other references?

Taking down my trusty concordance from the shelves, I found the next biblical reference to the Spirit is Genesis 41:37, in the stories of Joseph. Then I found this next one in Exodus 31:

The LORD spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft (vss. 1-5).

The text goes on to say that Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, joined Bezalel in the effort.

That chapter concerns the beginning of work on the tent of meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat, the tent’s furnishings and altar, the priestly vestments, and other essentials The Lord tells Moses that he has called Bezalel, and Oholiab to attend to these tasks. In fact, God has filled Bezalel “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (31:3). The tabernacle becomes the place where God’s presence could endure and where God’s will could be done via the Aaronic priesthood.

Sometimes, when I read the Bible, I try to imagine the text with no chapter and verse numbers; how would it read if the material were simply provided, unnumbered like any other story? I did that with this Exodus passage and what “popped” out was the passage immediately following. After detailing the work of the craftsmen of the tabernacle, God commands the day of rest; the Sabbath, with the refreshment that comes from it, is God’s eternal sign for Israel.

But the Sabbath is a sign that goes back to the very beginning: Genesis 1.[3] God created in six days and rested on the seventh, so Israel receives the Sabbath as a “perpetual covenant” (Ex. 31:16-17). Here, in Exodus 31, the Spirit empowers artists who help establish a place where Israel can worship God. But God not only establishes a physical place, but also a temporal “place”—the Sabbath—where Israel can worship God long after the tabernacle is no more.[4]

The mention of the divine spirit in Exodus 31:3 proves for us a little story arc from God’s creation of the world (with the hallowing of the seventh day: Gen. 2:2), across the generations, to Sinai: the slow, gracious creation of God’s people.[5]

I decided to flip around my Bible for several weeks and make some more connections.

1. God is Creator and Redeemer

Here in Exodus we have a connection between God’s hallowing of the Sabbath on the primordial seventh day and on the occasion of the Sinai covenant. But I was fascinated to learn in seminary that the connection of creation and redemption is made explicit in “Second Isaiah” from the 500s; creation is not an additional event preceding God’s saving acts in history, but rather creation itself is a saving act. Other prophets dealt less often with the theme of creation.[6]

Was it not you who dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
Who made the depths of the sea a way
For the redeemed to cross over?

So the ransomed of the Lord [in exile in Babylon] shall return,
And come to Zion with singing
(Isa. 51:10-11a).

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless
(Isa. 40:28-29)

In Psalm 19 we find a similar linkage: God’s creation and providence, and God’s law:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb
(Ps. 19:1-10).

One of my favorite psalms is 121, which also connects creation and redemption.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
(vss. 1-2).

Those verses remind me of Paul: If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31), but the psalm makes explicit that lovely theological connection of creation and redemption: God, maker of heaven and earth, is a source of help and care. Would the creator of heaven and earth be unable or unwilling to help someone who calls upon him? Of course not!

One time I did a funeral service for an older, reclusive man—a “hermit,” as people said. Only four men came to the service at the funeral home (nephews or cousins, if I remember correctly), and so with me and the young mortician, we had the right number of pallbearers. I believe I preached Psalm 121, or at least that scripture stays in mind because of the hilly cemetery near the state highway. God’s care extends to those who, by worldly standards, may not be notable. God rose a small, powerless people, the Hebrews, in order to bring about his salvation—and to teach us through the Hebrew scriptures.

2. God dwells among this people.

God’s ubiquity is, of course, a strong biblical doctrine. Psalm 139 is a good example.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I made my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
(vss. 7-10).

We need never think we’re far from God’s presence. My pastor recently preached on Daniel’s vision:

his throne was fiery flames,
its wheels were burning fire
(Dan. 7:9c)

The throne of the ancient of days has wheels! It travels!

In some passages, God seems “localized”: Moses’ and Elijah’s mountain experiences of God (Exodus 19, 1 Kings 19), the glory of God present in the Temple (which frighteningly departs in Ezekiel 10). God himself “localizes” himself in Deut. 16:16 and Isa. 8:18. But none of these passages are understood as a spatially-limited deity but rather special manifestations of divine power. The prophets, too, stressed that God’s presence was not found exclusively in the Temple (Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, and also Isaiah 66:1-2, quoted again in Acts 7:48-50). In the Talmud we find a story of a Jewish boy aboard a ship. During a storm, he prayed to the Lord. Later, the Gentile sailors told him, “We are here, but our gods are in Babylon or Rome; and others amongst us who carry their gods with them drive not the least benefit from them. But you, wherever you go, your God is with you.”[7]

Lovely passages call God “place”: like “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 declares that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The New Testament transfers this notion of place to Jesus, who becomes the place to know God (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2), the place that embraces all places, since he is the source of all creation (Col 1:15-20). He is present for us, any place and for all time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).[8] Of course, all of these “places” are also the places where we are, but not at all limited to us individually.

Exodus 31 concerns God’s tabernacle, the dwelling place where the people can approach God as they travel toward their promised land. “The tabernacle is given,” writes Graeme Goldsworthy, “because a key aspect of the character of God is his desire for fellowship with people, and this fellowship is primarily described as his dwelling among them.”[9] There is a wealth of connections of the tabernacle to Jesus. The New Testament connects the tabernacle, temple, and sacrificial system to Jesus: in the rending of the veil that isolated the holiest place of God’s presence (Matt. 27:51): priestly language such as Ephesians 5:2; and the book of Hebrews which understands the former times as a “shadow” of the true form (Heb. 8:1-7, 9, 10:1-18). John 1:14 promises that “the Word became flesh and lived [dwelled] among us.”[10]

The New Testament has other wonderful images of God’s dwelling. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them, promises Jesus (Mt. 18:20). Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? writes Paul (1 Cor. 3:16). I’ve heard that verse used as an encouragement for physical health, but within a biblical context, Paul’s words could’ve been interpreted as blasphemous against God’s Temple. But as God came freely to the Temple for the sake of his people, his Spirit now dwells freely within believers.

3. God is trustworthy

Assurances about God’s presence are important, because when life becomes difficult, we ask in our hearts, if not always in words, is God trustworthy?

We don’t disrespect God when we struggle sincerely to know he is faithful! For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). Some of the several “place stories” of the Bible serve as reminders of God’s trustworthiness. When I was little, we learned the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessings,” which contains the line, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come.” The Ebenezer was a memorial stone (1 Samuel 7:12), which Samuel erected to commemorate a victory of the Philistines at Mizpah. “Ebenezer” means “stone of help,” because Samuel said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

God has been gracious thus far, but will he always be gracious? Will God grow silent, as he frighteningly did for Saul later in 1 Samuel? The Ebenezer served as a place of reminder, as did other special places and memorials like Beer-lahai-roi (Gen. 16:14), YHWH Jireh (Gen. 22:14), Beer-sheba (Gen. 26:33), Bethel (Gen. 28:19), the stones of memorial (Joshua 4), and others.

The Bible gives us help when we lack reassurance. The psalmist recalled the past when the present weighed heavily.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will mediate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds
(Ps. 77:11-12).

Again, my favorite psalm, 121, begins with a question that can either be rhetorical or reassuring.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?

The psalmist needed trust for a journey across steep territory, perhaps to Jerusalem. Could God the Lord, the creator, save a poor pilgrim? Of course—but the traveler was right to look for assurance in God’s trustworthiness.[11]

Many of the psalms are about reminding and recollecting. In Psalm 42 and 43, the psalmist dares to tell himself, Hope in God, for I shall again praise him (Ps. 42:11, 43:5). In other words, praise for God is, at the moment, far from his heart because of all his troubles. And yet, “nevertheless” (Psalm 73:23), he knows that his heart will realign with God in the future. Consider Psalms 77 and 143, where the psalmist specifically recalls God’s past deeds because God’s power and presence seems, for the moment, very far away. Would you call this blasphemy from anyone else but a psalmist: “…Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion” And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” When was the last time you saw such honesty in your congregation?

Paul’s whole argument in Romans 3:21-8:39 might be called a defense for God’s trustworthiness. If you’re terribly unhappy and need assurance of God’s faithfulness, this long passage might be a good one to read for you, as Paul assures and reassures the glory and love of God shown through Jesus Christ. The tremendous initiative that God displayed in showing his love for us!

4. We are sinful

God is trustworthy, but our own trustworthiness is “iffy.” We are sinners; we stand in need of grace.[12]

The Bible has notable stories of human failure, starting at the very beginning. I love the Adam and Eve story, so tragic and yet so childlike. The couple did not attack God in the garden or plan a detailed coup. They just couldn’t quite recall the exact wording of God’s instruction. They listened to the serpent and to each other but didn’t think to seek God for help.

I also appreciate the story of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20-27): Think about it: Noah is the only person God considers worth saving from the flood—the same person who gets fall-down, pass-out drunk, without a stitch on. Like Adam and Eve, Noah also shifts blame—Ham and Canaan are cursed. (The text seems to leave out details when it says Noah awoke … and knew what his youngest son had done to him, vs. 24).

The story of the Golden Calf may be an even better a story of human failure than these. Aaron, too, shifts the focus away from his own poor judgment; he says that the people wanted a god, so he requested their gold, “and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (vs. 32:24). Such clever gold!

The poignancy of this story is its location within the larger story, the promise of the tabernacle in chapter 31 and its construction in chapter 35 and following. Rather than an odd inclusion within a larger story, we see the irony; at the time of the construction of the idol, God was providing a way by which the Israelites could approach and worship God. God allowed himself to be made known in a portable way—a way in which God dwelt among them—but the Israelites wanted to “nail down” God to a specific, predictable place. The people feared what the absence of Moses might entail, and in order to meet their own needs, they made an idol.

I try never to take a chiding attitude toward the biblical Hebrews, for they hold up a mirror, if we can recognize ourselves. How many times have we struggled with faith in the midst of God’s provision for us? God seems frustratingly absent sometimes; as in this story, we know that God may be doing something, but we don’t know what it is. We long for signs and specifics, without being quite patient enough to see what God is actually up to. The Hebrews themselves struggled with physical safety, water, and food.

Sin is “missing the mark” (the meaning of the Greek word hamartia), and some of our sin is the outcome of temptation, foolishness, and selfishness. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of that kind of sin: our meanness and cruelty. But our “missing the mark” often comes, poignantly, from our uncertainty about God’s leading. Should we act now? Should we wait for God? Can we really trust God? Do I say that I trust God and yet act and decide as if God doesn’t exist?

How greatly do we need grace at every moment! One of my favorite scriptures:

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
    who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
   there is no one who does good,
   no, not one
(Ps. 14:2-3)

5. God is a covenant-maker

An alternate title of the Bible might be “the covenants,” not only calling attention to the two main sections—old and new covenants/testaments—but also to the book’s content, which witnesses to the covenants that God has initiated.

The theme of covenant, too, links us back to creation. Many people experience a powerful spiritual connection to the natural world. A walk in the woods, time spent beside water, a visit to mountains, and other experiences elicit gratitude to God the Creator. Have you ever thought of creation as a covenant between God and us? The word “covenant” isn’t used in Genesis 1-3, but we do have a simple set of agreements between God and the first people, and Hosea (6:7) speaks of the covenant broken by Adam and, in turn, Israel’s transgression.

God established special covenants with humans (the “Noachian” covenant, Gen. 9:1-17), with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 15:18, 27:2, 7), and (in this scripture) an eternal covenant with Israel at Sinai (Ex. 31:13-17). The Sinai covenant was renewed four times (Deut. 29:1, 9, Josh. 24:25, 2 Kings 11:17, and 2 Kings 23:2, 3). By the covenant, God promised always to redeem and save his people. God also established “smaller” covenants through Israel’s history (Num. 18:19, 25:12, 13, Deut. 33, 9, Jer. 33, 21, Mal. 2:4 regarding the tribe of Levi; 2 Sam. 23:5, 2 Chron. 13:5, Jer. 33:21, Ps. 89:4, 35, 132:12 concerning David), but these also combined aspects of God’s promises: the land, the priesthood, and the monarchy.[13]

Jeremiah (31:31-34) speaks of the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jews understand this new covenant as a new dimension of the eternal Sinai covenant. Christians interpret Jeremiah as pointing to Christ, who did not abolish the Sinai covenant (Matt. 5:17) but fulfilled it by his death and resurrection (Heb. 8:1-10).

6. God imbeds within creation a day of rest and a promise of rest.

The holy day of rest, given to Israel, is imbedded in the very activity of creation, as testified by the so-called “Priestly author” whose work lies behind texts like Genesis 1:1-2:4, Exodus 25-31, and other sections of the Torah. I’ve attended several Sunday school classes wherein the subject of Genesis 1 came up: the different tasks of God on each day, the very meaning of “day” in light of modern science, the culmination of creation in the formation of human beings. And there … our classes always stop. We never move on to discuss the real climax of Genesis 1, the Sabbath (though not referred to by name here).

Perhaps our Christian neglect is explained by the way we read Jesus, who said that the Sabbath is made for human beings and not vice versa (Mark 2:23-28), and so we spend the day any way we want. Jesus’ apparent disregard for the Sabbath and its defining rules became a sticking-point between him and the religious leaders. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses his healing miracle (which happened on the Sabbath) as an opportunity to teach about himself (John 5). As for the Apostle Paul, he himself seems to have kept the Sabbath (Acts 18:4). But he was adamant against any religious rituals that become substitutions for God’s all-sufficient grace (e.g., Gal. 4:10, Rom. 14:5).

Paul, in fact, stresses the Holy Spirit as the sign of God’s grace. So here’s another connection to the Spirit of God. Paul scolds the Galatians that no rituals and observances take the place of the Spirit: the Galatians, after all, had received the Spirit already, all the more remarkable because the Galatians were Gentiles, and yet they’d received the promises made to Israel. Thus Paul is concerned that their scrupulous religious observances might nullify the grace of God! (We usually think of “falling from grace” as a synonym for moral lapse, but here, Paul uses the term for religious observance that tries to “nail down” God’s grace, Gal. 5:2-5).

So … Have we Christians used Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings as an excuse to domesticate the Sabbath, making it a day to attend church and, otherwise, to carry on as before? How do we respond to God’s call for holiness in and though the Sabbath—which is God’s desire for the Israelites in this passage of Exodus? How do we embrace the beauty of the Sabbath as God’s eternal sign and blessing?

There is another aspect of “rest” implied in Exodus 31, the rest of the Promised Land. This, too, is something we Christians tend to relegate to biblical heritage rather than a key idea in our faith. Here, too, we look to Jesus, and specifically a dense passage in Hebrews.

In Hebrews 4:1-13, the author contrasts kinds of rest. God promised the Israelites rest, that is, the Promised Land, but the people failed to reach it because of their disobedience. But the author simultaneously connects “rest” with the Sabbath (and, indeed, uses the word in verse 2 to refer both to the Land and to the Sabbath). God ordained a day of rest for work (the author explicitly links Psalm 95 with Genesis 2:2 in verses 4 and 5, so as to tie together the promise of Canaan with the Sabbath), and links them all to Christ’s salvation.

Canaan and the Sabbath both point to a new kind of rest: the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Implicit in that conception of rest is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, for the Holy Spirit is the best sign of our salvation: you … were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge (in the RSV: “guarantee”) of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:13-14).

7. God demands holiness

I love this hymn and its wistful tune, which I first learned in childhood.

Take time to be holy, speak, oft with thy Lord;
Abide in him always, and feed on his world.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing his blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct his likeness shall see.
Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive, beneath his control.
Thus led by his spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.

I become impatient when people, in protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments from public facilities, say that the commandments are important (and thus worthy of display) in the history of law. They are certainly important in that way. But we should not water down their meaning by disconnecting them from God’s covenant, that is, from God’s call for holiness and his own promise to be just, gracious, and merciful (Ex. 34:6-7). If you notice the context of the Commandments (Exodus 20), God first gathers the people at Sinai and makes a covenant with them (Ex. 19), and only then gives them laws. Within those laws, in turn, God provides means for repentance and atonement for sin.[14]

In other words, God’s grace and love always precedes and encompasses the ethical aspects of God’s will, not vice versa.

We see that ordering of grace and law here in Exodus 31-34 as well. God authorizes the construction of the tabernacle, its furnishings, sacred objects, and the ark, and requires the observance of the Sabbath. The sin of the golden calf intrudes, and Moses intercedes for the people. Then God renews the covenant, rewrites the Ten Commandments on new stone tablets, and promises to be gracious and merciful to the thousandth generation.

The Sabbath and the tabernacle are aspects of God’s dwelling among the Israelites.[15] Reading about the subject of God’s holiness, I was struck by the difference between Genesis and much of the rest of the Old Testament. In Genesis God seeks trust and covenant-partners; he’s not yet a law-giver, with the divine characteristics that we associate with a law-giver and judge. But after Genesis, terms about holiness predominate; there are nearly 350 of them after Genesis and over 830 in the Old Testament. The word “holy” and its variants (including the Greek word translated as “saints”) appear about 230 times in the New Testament.[16]

The holiness of God is reflected in Israel’s life in the distinctions between unclean and clean, holy and common, and sacred and profane.[17] We may scoff at the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness because of texts like Acts 10:9-16, but in Israel, these were God-given parameters for how to live and how to relate properly to God, not only according to God’s expressed will but according to God’s revealed nature, the Holy God who dwells in Israel. (cf. Zech. 2:13-8:23; 14:20-21).

Holiness in Israel also has the component of justice—again, reflecting the nature of God as just and righteous. Holiness is never understood (properly at least) as only a concern for right ritual, cleanness, and restoration from uncleanness. Israel also witnesses to God through acts of justice, provision, and care for the needy (Lev. 19; Ps. 68:5).

Do you think of holiness as a key theme of the Bible? Perhaps you think of the theme as a characteristic of God, which it is. But those who relate to the Lord, those who are called by him, are called to lives of holiness, too. The work of Christ includes sanctification of believers: thus they’re called hagioi, “saints” or “holy ones,” a term used over 60 times in the NT. As one writer puts it, the outward aspects of holiness in the OT are “radically internalized in the New Testament believer.” “They [the believer/saints] are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) evidencing purity (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 7:1), righteousness (Eph. 4:24, and love (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 2:5-6, 20; 4:13-21). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”[18]

The Spirit and his holiness also reflect the nature of God. The purity and justice to which Christians are called are Spirit-given gifts and, as such, are God’s own holiness born within us which empower our witness to others (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Pet. 1.4). The same author notes, “[God’s] character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people (1 Peter 1:15-16).”[19]

In an important way, God’s call of holiness links the beginning of the Bible with the end, because the book of Revelation uses the Torah language of cleanness, separation, and holiness to show who, at the end of time, will share eternal life (“rest” again) with Christ (Rev. 22:11-15).

We could say that, as God dwelled among his people through the tabernacle, he dwells among us through the Spirit. But as in the ancient times, God calls us to reflect his nature and witness to his holiness. Because we bear his Name, we seek God’s help as we look around for opportunities to witness, to serve others, and to take the side (as God does) of the poor and oppressed.

8. Your Life

Through this “journey,” I’ve discussed theology and Bible interpretation. But these things also describe the reality of your life as a Christian. I learned in my first religion class in college that theology is like science; it’s a way of understanding the world and yourself, and the “data” is God’s Word.[20] Whatever are the specifics of your life, the daily and yearly reality of your life as a Christian is: the identity of your Lord and Savior, your own need as a sinner, and the grace which saves, guides, and directs your life.

I don’t mean that our lives function at the same level as the Bible stories. Oswald Chambers puts it well: “Have we ever got into the way of letting God work, or are we so amazingly important that we really wonder in our nerves and ways what the Almighty does before we are up in the morning!”[21]  But as we read the Bible, we perceive in our own experiences similar patterns of God’s grace as depicted in the biblical narratives. We discern the ways and seasons of God’s grace. We view the world (our immediate world, the world of our news sources) in increasingly sensitive ways. With humility, trust, and growth, we open ourselves to the fruit of the Spirit—the same Spirit who moved over the ancient waters.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotations are NRSV.

1. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture by Jean LeClercq, O.S.B. (Third edition, New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), pages. 74-75.

2. My study books Paul and the Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) and Mystery: Exploring the Mystery of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

3. Genesis 1-2:4 and Exodus 25-31 are part of the Priestly source in the Pentateuch.

4. Abraham Joshua Heschel has wonderful images of the “architecture of time,” and the Sabbath as a palace in time, in his book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: The Noonday Press, 1975).

5. Dominique Barthélemey, O.P., describes God’s choice of Israel in chapter 3 of his God and His image: An Outline of Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

6. Old Testament Theology. Volume II, The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions by Gerhard von Rad (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pages 240-241.

7. Quoted in Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics, by Max Jammer, 3rd ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1993), page 30, and in turn quoted in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), page 26.

8. Stroble, You Gave Me a Wide Place, pages 25-26.

9. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), page 156.

10. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Merril C. Tenney, general ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), pages 821-824.

11. These paragraphs are adopted from Stroble, You Gave Me a Wide Place, pages 27, 137-140.

12. Barthélemey, chapter 2, provides an interesting account of Adam and Eve, the fear of God instilled in human beings, and the restoration of the image of God that we find in Christ. His chapter 5, in turn, concerns the substitution of true worship with idols

13. The article “Covenant” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/  An excellent study of the Land and its connection to creation, the covenant, the New Testament, and other biblical themes, is The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann (Second edition, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

14. A resume of the Torah’s atonement laws and rites is found in How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), chapter 9.

15. Article “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), page 343. An interesting study of the Old Testament’s several approaches to holiness is Holiness in Israel by John G. Gammie (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), who sees in the Hebrew scriptures different but related themes like the holiness of the Sabbath, cleanness, the pursuit of justice, and individual morality and integrity. Another excellent study of the biblical theme of holiness is Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness by John C. Haughey, S.J. (Chicago: Jesuit Way, 2002).

16. “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, pages 340-344.

17. “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 342. Marc Zvi Brettler quotes another scholar, Jacob Milgrom, who likened the Temple and rites to “the picture of Dorian Gray,” for the sins and uncleanness of the people “built up” in the Temple and had to be purified; hence the disaster in Ezekiel 10 when God’s glory left the Temple; How to Read the Jewish Bible, pages 76-77.

18. “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 343.

19. “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 343.

20. Augustine has a prayer, Noverim te, noverim me, “May I know you [God], may I know myself.” As Thomas Merton writes, “We wish to gain a true evaluation of ourselves and of the world so to understand the meaning of our life as children of God redeemed from sin and death.” Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1990), p. 67.

21. The Quotable Oswald Chambers, compiled and edited by David McCasland (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), page 10. Yet another “take” on the theme of holiness can be found in Five Views on Sanctification by Melvin E. Dieter et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

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